9/11 anniversary: Al-Qaeda rebounding as a threat, say experts

Tuesday September 12 2017

US President Donald Trump observes a moment of

US President Donald Trump observes a moment of silence with US First Lady Melania Trump and others after placing a wreath during a memorial service at the Pentagon for the 9/11 terrorist attacks September 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. PHOTO | BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI | AFP 

By AFP
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WASHINGTON,

Al-Qaeda is on the rise again in the shadow of the Islamic State group in Syria, 16 years after the jihadists shocked the United States in the September 11, 2001 attacks, experts said Monday.

They said that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Sunni group that last month seized control of the northern Syrian city of Idlib, is simply a "rebranding" of Al-Qaeda that is positioning itself as more moderate than the Islamic State in hopes of a resurgence.

AFFILIATE

"ISIS may be today's preeminent terrorist threat, but Al-Qaeda in Syria is worrisome. It is Al-Qaeda's largest global affiliate at this point," said former White House counterterrorism director Joshua Geltzer.

Speaking on the current terror threat against the United States at the New America think tank, Geltzer and other experts said they expect HTS to take centre stage among jihadists as the Islamic State group loses ground on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.

HTS is simply a cosmetic name-change for Al-Qaeda, they said.

Family members, first responders and others

Family members, first responders and others attend a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks at the National September 11 Memorial, September 11, 2017 in New York City. PHOTO | DREW ANGERER | GETTY IMAGES | AFP

In consolidating control of much of Idlib Province, it has eliminated or absorbed rival groups, and is modernising its propaganda on the web-savvy model of the Islamic State.

"The organisation itself seems to have more lives than a cat," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, co-author with Geltzer of a New America report on the current jihadist threat. 

SUPPORT

He called Al-Qaeda a "much stronger" organisation than in 2010, when its weakness gave way to the rise of Islamic State.

"It has skilfully played itself off of ISIS to portray its organisation as being the 'moderate jihadists', people who you might not like but you can do business with."

A New York City Police Department officer

A New York City Police Department officer breaks down while visiting the North pool during a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks at the National September 11 Memorial, September 11, 2017 in New York City. PHOTO | DREW ANGERER | GETTY IMAGES | AFP

As such it has more popular support, and some official support in the Gulf States.

"Being more restrained than ISIS has been very helpful," Gartenstein-Ross said.

THREAT

The New America report stresses the need to focus on Islamic State as the most dangerous external threat at the moment, while noting that since 9/11 all lethal jihadist attacks in the United States have been by US citizens or permanent residents.

Firefighters hold up a flag that flew at the

Firefighters hold up a flag that flew at the World Trade Center at the start of a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks at the National September 11 Memorial, September 11, 2017 in New York City. PHOTO | DREW ANGERER | GETTY IMAGES | AFP

But it says Al-Qaeda could resume the role of the foremost threat in the future, gathering followers turned off by the Islamic State's most extreme tactics.

While current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is turgid and  uninspiring, the younger leaders in Idlib are learning from the way that Islamic State mastered the use of social media to attract followers.

US President Donald Trump and First Lady

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, senior advisor Jared Kushner (L) and Ivanka Trump observe a moment of silence on September 11, 2017, at the White House during the 16th anniversary of 9/11. PHOTO | BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI | AFP

"Al-Qaeda in Syria has undergone cosmetic changes to its naming and organisational design, but without truly renouncing its affiliation with its mother organisation," the study said.